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Train Your Mind to Spot Upcoming Changes

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by Rob-Jan de Jong, consultant

Photo of Rob DeJong

Rob-Jan De Jong

Back in 1967, the eminent futurists Anthony J. Wiener and Herman Kahn wrote a 431-page magnum opus titled The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years. It’s filled with predictions, including the arrival of home computers that would manage households and communicate with the outside world, as well as the use of personal pagers (much like cell phones).

As right as they were about computers, though, Wiener and Kahn missed the mark on a number of their predictions. Noiseless helicopters haven’t replaced taxis, artificial moons don’t illuminate the sky, and interplanetary travel has not become an everyday occurrence. Our lifespans haven’t increased to 150 years, either.

These inaccuracies did not matter to Wiener and Kahn. Why not? Because their reason for engaging with the future and exploring possible changes in the decades ahead was to, in their words, “reduce the role of thoughtlessness.” They referred to their work as “a framework for speculation.” Clarification, not prophecy, was their goal.

Like Wiener and Kahn, we can choose not to aim to become accurate, or even good, predictors of the future. Instead, we can work to develop an increased awareness of changing realities, building antennas for the distant signals that might push the future in a different direction from the one we currently and conventionally foresee. We can then become better at recognizing those signals and their potential impact when they present themselves in some early form.

Your ability to see things early is at the heart of what leadership expert Warren Bennis calls adaptive capacity—the ability to be flexible and adapt to new situations and contexts. By deliberately working on your ability to pick up early signals, by actively engaging with the future, by imagining changing realities, by making predictions not for the sake of predicting, but for the sake of reducing your thoughtlessness, you can extend the interval in which you can successfully react to change, either offensively or defensively.

But doing this takes more than a process or a strategy; it requires the right mindset and associated behaviors. The good news is that this kind of future-oriented behavior and mindset can be cultivated and nurtured within an organization. Some fascinating research by Harvard’s Sreedhari Desai and Francesca Gino helps explain how this works.

Their study shows that adults are less likely to cheat and more likely to engage in positive social behavior when primed with reminders from their childhood. They demonstrated this behavior by having adults solve math puzzles on which they could easily cheat if they wanted to.

Participants were told that the number of right answers mattered, so there was some incentive for participants to reach a good score and therefore to cheat if they felt it would improve their results. And here comes the remarkable finding: The researchers discovered that their subjects were much less likely to cheat—by a factor of 20 percent—when they did these math puzzles in a room full of childhood cues, such as teddy bears, cartoons, and crayons, instead of in a neutral room. So the sheer fact that they performed their exercises in a room that—unknown to them—was intentionally filled with reminders of children had a notable effect on the subjects’ state of mind and their willingness to cheat.

ChartDesai and Gino also found that people behaved much better around those cues, even when they weren’t feeling particularly happy.

These fascinating outcomes are actually not so radical, when you think about them. As parents, we behave differently around children—we mind our manners, we swear less, and we are much less tolerant of inappropriate conduct. Desai and Gino’s study demonstrates that these behaviors can also be provoked in the absence of children by using childhood cues.

Their intriguing research emphasizes that the thoughts we adopt, whether consciously or unconsciously, translate into how we behave. Imagine, then, what a boardroom filled with dolls could do for honest conversation.


Primed to See Things Early

The childhood cues used by Desai and Gino are what psychologists refer to as primes, prompts that activate particular associations and influence behavior. How, then, can we deliberately, consciously, prime our minds, to see things early? With FuturePriming.

I developed FuturePriming to help executives improve their ability to see things early. It originates from an exercise called MindPriming, which I often use in my work with teams and groups. I ask them to take a look around the room and try to absorb and remember as much information as possible. I give them a minute or so and then show nine different colors on a screen and ask them to select one at random. Then I ask them to look around the room again, but now only for things that match their color.

Inevitably, people start to notice “new” things: a jacket folded over a chair, a vase of flowers in the corner of the room, the emergency exit sign above the door, the Post-it notes on their table. When their minds are primed to seek out one color, previously unnoticed details emerge.

That’s what happens to us as we process the daily onslaught of news and other information. We can’t remember or even pay attention to all of it. But what if, amid all the noise, there are the first signs of change? Obviously we’d want to appreciate and remember those things.

So how does FuturePriming work? It’s very simple, but to explain it, I must first introduce the concept of FutureFacts (full disclosure, there’s nothing factual about them; just stick with me).

A FutureFact is a manifestation of a possible changing reality.

Change is often described in generic, broad terms. For example, a typical strategy paper starts with a list of a whole lot of trends and developments. It speaks of “increased urbanization,” “further proliferation of technology,” “decreasing welfare support,” “growing influence of emerging economies,” and so on. Effectively, this language describes trend lines, or at least prompts our mind to paint a picture of a gradual change, described in abstract language.

The trend description doesn’t really hit us in the face, so we tend to agree with it. Or disagree. But it doesn’t update our thinking because we weren’t provoked.

Now check out what happens to your mind if I describe the following changing reality, to possibly take place three years from now: “Candy industry banned from advertising.” The change has become manifest by imagining a concrete event that largely tells the story. Your mind has now created a tangible, memorable hook about a possible changing reality.

I’m not saying that this exact event will happen in three years’ time, but I’m imagining a manifestation of how abstract change might concretely appear in the real world we live in. Instead of saying “increased urbanization,” I say that, four years from now, “50% of children will spend only five days a year outside the city.”

The more specific statement has a much greater impact on your thinking than the generic phrase did. It intrigues you, and possibly worries or upsets you. It might even make you defensive and resistant. All these emotions are fine, as they show that your thinking has been activated, that your brain has become really engaged in how the future might look quite different.

Although the exact statement in the FutureFact might turn out to be incorrect, the mind is now much more concretely primed to related early indicators of change that we pick up in the news, even if they just closely or remotely resemble it.


FutureFact Nitty-Gritty

I suggest that you aim to create five to ten FutureFacts per quarter, which will ensure a digestible quantity of ideas; and that you capture each of them in a form that includes a catchy, self-explanatory title, a brief rationale, and a time set between three and seven years into the future, and that you log them so you can refer back to them.

The example of a FutureFact shown in Figure 1 looks like the summary of an intriguing article you might find in your favorite newspaper or website. But it is fictional (or at least it was at the time of writing). It describes an invented future “event” that imagines public policy influencing and changing consumers’ behavior to reduce their carbon footprints.

Image OneAs you create your own FutureFacts, focus on signals that would indicate the start of a changing reality, not the end. For example, “Amazon.com Sells Final Paper Book” (expressing the idea that digital books redefine the market) or “Bank of America Dismantles Its Last ATM Machine” (expressing the idea that cash payments have become a rarity and are replaced by cards and digital payments) mark the late signals, not the early signals.

Also, do not to go into judgment mode. Remember—the goal isn’t to accurately predict a future event. What’s important in this example is entertaining the overarching idea that more significant and confrontational measures are needed in order to combat greenhouse gas pollution, and these might be implemented in the future.

Simply contemplating an idea that highlights the change you are interested in opens your eyes to something real you might read about in the next few months.

Figure two

Figure 2 shows a few more examples of FutureFacts that similarly prime your mind.

Essentially, FuturePriming is about writing your own FutureFacts. You engage your imagination by entertaining unconventional, possibly disruptive, future events. This way, you are priming your mind to notice first hints that initially present themselves only at the periphery of your attention.


Rules for Best Results

Of course, you want to imagine FutureFacts that are maximally geared to bringing you strategically relevant insights and to strengthening your ability to become a first-class noticer. Therefore, some further direction is required.

I’ve found that four simple rules help you get the most from FuturePriming.

Rule 1: Scope for relevance and time. Look for relevant changing realities in your business, industry, and geographical area. Your scope should be wide enough to capture any relevant signals, but not so wide that you have too much information to consider.

For example, the financial sector in the UK might be influenced by regulations from the European Union, growing financial power in the Middle East, and evaporating trust in business leadership and the capitalistic model. All transcend the boundaries of the UK financial industry but might have significant impact on the future of that industry.

As mentioned, you should scope your timeline to a minimum of three and a maximum of seven years into the future. That scope is far enough out to be creative, and near enough to already be relevant for thinking about.

Rule 2: Don’t make your own company part of your FutureFact. FuturePriming is designed to stimulate you to look out the window and playfully engage with possible changes in the future environment you might need to operate in. It’s about sharpening your contextual intelligence. But the outside-in perspective doesn’t seem to come naturally for some people.

Organizational developments, achievements, and direction are affected by influences that are completely outside the company’s control, usually to a larger extent than most companies like to admit.

Economic crises, changing customer preferences, the development of the oil price or the interest rate, the arrival of breakthrough technologies, the entrance of a rogue competitor, and new government policies—all are examples of such developments. Organizations can shape their reactions to these changes, but hardly ever the changes themselves.

Rule 3: Explore the area between the conventional and the absurd. When people start using FuturePriming, their thoughts and ideas about the future are commonly pretty conventional. Then, when they realize that their first ideas are too conventional, they typically veer toward the absurd (“First Spaceship Reaches the Sun,” “50% of Babies Now Have Phones”).

The fertile ground for useful FutureFacts is the area between the conventional, on one end, and the absurd, on the other. Stretch what you—and those around you—currently already believe. Without going overboard.

As a general principle, effective FutureFacts provoke, challenge, and play in the mental space where you think, “Hmmm, maybe . . .”

Rule 4: Describe an event, not a trend. As good journalists do, create a memorable hook that highlights something significant about the event you’re describing. Descriptions of trends (“ever-growing need for clean water,” “dwindling interest in politics”) won’t cut it.

These four rules collectively provide the direction and boundaries for effective FuturePriming. The net result should be FutureFacts described in clear, even visual, detail to help you remember them.

Give your imagination full rein; invent research, statistics, company names, and country names to vividly capture the changing reality and get that kind of Aha! effect you need to prime successfully.

Then promote your ideas and make them visible. Put them up on your office wall. Talk about them with your team or other colleagues who can help sharpen your ideas. Claim a column in the company newsletter, or start a blog about your creations. Tweet about them. Make them the opening discussion of your (management) team meeting.

This way you bring them to life, supporting both the development of your own sensory system and others’ perception of your future-oriented leadership.

Rob-Jan de Jong, a consultant who helps leaders and companies anticipate the future and devise strategies, is one of five faculty members in Wharton’s flagship executive program, Global Strategic Leadership. This article is derived from his book Anticipate: The Art of Leading by Looking Ahead published by AMACOM Books, a Division of the American Management Association; © 2015 Rob-Jan de Jong. All rights reserved. To learn more: amacombooks.org.

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